By Jason Offutt
Author’s note: In Spring 2013, I spent three and a half weeks teaching in the UK. This is one in an amazingly sporadic series exploring my time there.
Hills covered in fields of flowering yellow rapeseed flanked by lines of deep green trees rise and fall toward the horizon in every direction in the country outside London.
Thatched-roof, chocolate-box houses occasionally appear on the roadside the farther we get from the city, although these houses were few. Most country homes, especially those in the small towns along our way, are red brick with tiled roofs, thatch being a thing of the past. Big square pubs with locals sitting at tables outside for a lunchtime pint feature prominently in these towns. If we were going to be on this bus another minute I was going to need to stop at one.
Then we popped over a hill and saw our destination. Stonehenge.
Built in prehistoric England by … well, despite what archeologists tell us, no one knows who built this 108-foot circle of 10- to 26-foot high stones that range from 1.5 to more than 150 tons each.* And, more puzzling, no one knows why, or even how they built it. A number of these volcanic bluestones were moved to the area from a spot in Wales 160 miles away.
I’ve wanted to see Stonehenge since I first read about it in second grade, and here it was right outside the vehicle’s window, and growing larger with each moment. My first words after all these years of anticipation were, “Holy (expletive).” Forgive me, I’m American; we lack subtlety.
“Aliens,” Lucas, one of my students, said loudly enough for half the bus to hear. “I’m going to ask questions about aliens.”
Stonehenge (which means hanging stone) looked a bit like aliens were really bad at playing Jenga. Space aliens actually make a bit more sense than the thought of primitive man cutting then dragging 150-ton stones 160 miles and arranging them in a circle to line up with the stars of the midwinter solstice. Work on this megalithic structure began 5,000 years ago; the only Caterpillars at that time weren’t used at construction sites, they turned into butterflies.
Aliens? Yeah, I’m fine with that.
As we stood in line, a slight honk moved the line off a handicap parking spot. A little blue car pulled into the spot and a middle-aged woman stepped out. Donned in a deep blue cloak and a crown of woven flowers, the woman held a staff topped with a carved wooden goat’s head.
“She’s a witch,” someone said.
I nodded. “I know. We’re going to have to burn her.”
Druids have worshipped at Stonehenge for thousands of years. Considered a sacred temple, the structure still serves as a place of worship during the winter and summer solstices. If I remembered my “Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook” correctly, she was no Druid.
The queue began to move and took us through a tunnel under the highway and up to Stonehenge.
One of the complaints consistent with the first time someone sees a historical object is that it’s smaller than they expected. Emerging from the tunnel to the level of the stones, I can tell you, Stonehenge is exactly what I expected.
Vertical stones with horizontal capstones loom 13 feet over the people walking the perimeter, the taller stones in the center stand above these. Yeah, it’s big. The witch was off to the side talking with a family from Germany and waving her staff.
Busloads of tourists merged with us as we made our way around the site, just a smattering of the 800,000 people who visit here each year. At £8 for adults, and £4.80 for children, one of the greatest standing wonders of the ancient world is a bit of a bargain.
My group made its way to the exit and found the cloaked woman with the goat-head staff kneeling and talking with a child.
“I’m going to talk to her,” Lucas said.
“I think she has a wart,” I told him. “I’d be careful.”
Olivia, another student, stopped Lucas. “She might curse you.”
We only had an hour at Stonehenge. Pity. I could have stayed all day.
* Stonehenge isn’t just the rocks. It also incorporates a shallow 361-foot trench around the stones, but I left it out because nobody comes to Stonehenge and says, “Will you look at that ditch.”